In a news story that has a major “ew” factor and raises ethical as well as medical questions, a reputable Italian neurosurgeon recently published a paper outlining how the first human head transplant could be done, and likely will be done in coming years. He says the targets are people with grave illness, whose bodies have failed them—like those with muscular dystrophy, for instance. But, he adds, it could create a black market for youthful bodies and the rich, aging population who wants to trade their own failing vessels in.
Obviously not a simple feat, the surgery would take an estimated 100 surgeons about 36 hours. It would cost an estimated $12.6 million.
Though shocking, this isn’t the first talk of a head transplant. In 1970, Dr. Robert Joseph White, an American neurosurgeon, transplanted a monkey’s head onto another monkey’s body. Technology at the time wouldn’t allow Dr. White to repair the severed spinal cord, however, and the monkey was left paralyzed and soon died.
Now, Dr. Canavero says the technology is here to make such an endeavor possible. He cited studies where spinal cords were reconnected in rats, suggesting that success can be found if surgeons are able to fuse the nerve cells called axons, which transmit messages from the brain through the spinal cord and throughout the body.
“The greatest technical hurdle to such endeavor is of course the reconnection of the donor’s and recipient’s spinal cords. It is my contention that the technology only now exists for such linkage,” says Canavero.
One of the feats to overcome—the lack of oxygen to the brain during the transplant process. The brain can only survive without oxygen for a single hour. So, the surgeons would have to work quickly.
Canavero says the operation could save lives, but admits there is the potential for abuses. He says there is the risk that those with millions to spend may obtain healthy young bodies through the “black market” and then pay shady surgeons to attach them—a scene right out of science fiction to be sure.
According to Medical News Today, the paper from Dr. Sergio Canavero was published in the June issue of Surgical Neurology International. The project, “code-named” HEAVEN/GEMINI would seek to place a healthy head (donor recipient) onto a donor’s body.